The building was well outside the borders of Omashu and set far back from the road; which confused him until he heard a rumbling crack and a hail of stone chips sailed over the walls. The complex was a single story, high walls surrounding an unusually massive courtyard, with the main building on the far end. Rather than the elegant stonework or geometric gardens of the traditional Earth Kingdom style the open space was bare earth, packed flat from the feet of the students moving in stances across it. A few of them stopped to look at him curiously, but thanks to his unassuming Earth Kingdom clothes, most ignored him in favour of their training.
The open room of the main building was dim and cool after the hot summer sun. The walls unadorned stone inset with evenly spaced doors that presumably lead to the living quarters. The one concession to aesthetics was the enormous seal that hung over the back wall done in green and gold metal. A stylized earthbending symbol emblazoned with the name of the academy. Below it lounged a very bored looking young woman behind a desk.
He had heard that the Sifu here had once taught only young women, offering them a place to escape controlling families and achieve independence. After a time a number of young men had proved themselves worthy to study under the master, but it was still know that any man who wished to assert his 'natural dominance' over the women of this school would quickly find himself buried beneath a landslide. That is, if he was lucky. Appearance could be deceiving, he was reminded, as he watched the girl whistle and pick absently at her nails.
"Come back tomorrow." She said as he stepped forward.
"I haven't even told you what I'm doing here yet."
She rolled her eyes at him. "The Sifu isn't here. She's never here at this time of the year. If you were expected you would know that. Come back tomorrow, she might be here by then."
"I'm not here to train - "
As if summoned by their conversation there was an uproar in the courtyard. Cheering and joyous cries of 'Master!' could be heard through the open door. The girl at the desk snapped to attention, on her feet faster than his eye could follow. He stepped smoothly to the side of the room, out of immediate line of sight, watching with interest as a figure appeared silhouetted against the slowly falling sun.
The woman stepped into the dim office and he actually felt his jaw drop. She was shorted than he had expected - though her personality had always been large enough to imbue her with a false sense of size - and thickly muscled enough that she would have been stocky if not for her slender waist and delicate features. Sunlight glinted off what looked like battle regalia; polished metal covered her shoulders and arms, bracers hid thin wrists and tall greaves covered her ankle to knee. One elaborate pauldron was formed to look like a winged boar bursting from the metal and the ceremonial buckle from an earth rumble championship belt decorated the sash high on her waist. Long black hair hung in a loose, shining braid down her back, swinging with the sway of unfamiliar womanly hips, but her bangs still hung forward to shadow fogged green eyes and her feet were still bare.
"Sifu Toph! We weren't expecting you for weeks." The girl stuttered. In the shadows he couldn't help but smirk. Tomorrow, huh?
"Sparky got some letter and took off like he was being chased by a herd of sabertoothed moose lions. I got him to give me a ride in that airship of his." She dumped her heavy looking pack with a thump against the desk. "And relax Kana, I don't ever mind you torturing new blood. Gets 'em used to it." Toph grinned in his direction. "So who is it this time? His heart's beating like a…like…"
There was a desperate pause, a hitch in her voice. "Aang?"
"Hello Toph." She spun on her heel, took two running steps forward and launched herself at him with the force of a boulder. "TWINKLE TOES!"
"TOPH!" He scooped her up and spun in dizzy circles. Home, home at last!
Toph had to make retching noises before Aang would let her go, which earned him a jab to the arm that had a lot more force behind it then he remembered. "Twinkletoes stop! Let me see you." Toph stepped back and stomped her foot against the stone floor, her head cocking ever so slightly to the side as she listened to the vibrations of the earth.
"You're so much taller Twinkles…" She reached out a hesitant hand and paused as though reluctant to touch him. Astonished to see Toph unsure about anything Aang clasped her small hand in his and pressed it firmly to his cheek. A smile broke over her face like a sunrise as she ran her fingers over the rise of his cheekbones, the ridge of his brow, the shell of his too-large ears and into the tangle of dark hair he hadn't yet taken the time to remove. "Where's the shiny head?" she asked him with the soft whuff of laughter in her voice. Toph moved her hand forward again, tracing the changed shape of his nose and coming to rest on the bow of his mouth. He smiled and kissed the tips of her fingers affectionately, causing her to jerk her hand away in surprise.
"Missed you Sifu."
Her eyes narrowed, though her expression remained inscrutable as ever. "Kana!" She demanded of the girl behind the desk. "The Avatar arrived while I was away didn't he?" "By a few minutes Sifu."
"Did you give him the message?"
"Ah, no Sifu Toph-"
"Well go on then."
"But - you're here now and... I can't give him that message he's the spirits blessed avatar!" The girl looked caught between utter panic and total annoyance. Toph simply stepped around the desk to the armour stand against the far wall and began to unstrap her heavy pauldrons.
"I'm waiting Kana."
The girl cringed away even as she approached him, like she was afraid he might unleash the elements on her at any moment. Aang tried to give her a reassuring smile, glancing at Toph to see if she was giving away any clues. Kana took advantage of his momentary distraction to bend a sizeable boulder out of the stone floor and pin him to the wall with it.
"Message from Sifu Toph Bei Fong of the Bei Fong Bandits to Avatar Aang of the Southern Air Temple," She pitched her voice to imitate the blind woman with uncanny accuracy. "Good to have you back Twinkle Toes."
"She's supposed to bend you into the floor until I get back, but as I'm here already…" Aang groaned and pushed the boulder back into the floor with a brief gesture. Kana bowed and mouthed a soundless apology that made her eathbending master smirk. He returned the smile before his brain caught up with his eyes and he jerked his head away, feeling his cheeks heat.
"What?" She finished unlacing the pale green and yellow sashes that bound her mossy coloured waist wrapping together, pulling herself free of the ornamental layer and hanging it on the stand with her armour.
"What are you doing?" Toph stripped off her greaves and unbuttoned most of knee length sleeveless robe, exposing an emerald, midriff baring top. "I'm stopping here Twinkle Toes don't worry."
Aang felt his mouth go slightly dry. Apparently the elements had chosen to balance Toph's blindness by blessing her in other ways. Those curves were definitely something that hadn't been there before he'd left. Stop it. Aang reminded himself. You are a monk.
But he wasn't blind.
Closing his eyes he breathed deeply, concentrating on clearing his mind and slowing the beat of his heart. He was a young man; such reactions were to be expected. Besides, it was only Toph.
"That's better," Aang straightened unsure if she was referring to his reaction or her less restrictive clothing. "Come on Twinkles, I have to go check on my earthbenders."
All eyes turned to Toph when she entered the practice yard but she made no move to address the students so they soon turned back to their drills. He watched as she moved smoothly between them shifting and correcting stances, ruthless in her encouragement and stingy with her praise, but he could see how her pupil's eyes lit up when she offered them a benevolent nod. Aang had to admit she was scrupulously fair about the whole thing. No one received a dressing down in front of their peers, no one was humiliated by their failures. Toph simply made sure they knew that she thought them capable of more and that they damn well better quit questioning her judgment by not doing it. "Come on, you've got the stuff." She would assure them, with a pat on the back that nearly sent a few sprawling.
The phrase that had so thrilled him as a boy worked wonders here as well. Time and again a flagging student would regain confidence at those words. The desire to please Sifu Toph Bei Fong, it seemed, was universal.
When she had done a full circuit of the training yard she rejoined him on the steps of the main building. Letting out a piercing two fingered whistle she stomped her foot against the stones, sending up cuffs of earth that froze everyone in place. "Huddle up!" She yelled as the bindings vanished. "I can see how you've all gotten sloppy in my absence, and I promise to work you all into the ground for it, but today we have something a little different. What's the first rule of earthbending?"
"Listen!" Someone shouted. Toph nodded.
"Good. Now I've told you that you won't always be fighting non benders or earthbenders. That's why we have Master Katara and her waterbenders come here for a week every year, and why the general comes to shoot fire at you when he's bored. But this time we have a special treat. Visiting us today is my very first student!"
A sharp rise of earth under his heels pushed him forward next to Toph and he pulled the wide brimmed hat off to expose the tattoos decorating his forehead. There was a collective gasp and frantic whispering began in the crowd. Toph bent a rock out of the ground and sent it flying over the heads of her distracted students, making them duck and yanking their attention back to her.
"Come on now he's not that impressive," That garnered a few scandalized giggles.
"I haven't had the chance to train my wayward student in quite a long time and I want to see how he's progressing," There was a certain anticipatory smile that began to appear on the students faces as Toph was speaking. Aang decide he did not like it one little bit. "So I think, as a student of the World's Greatest Earthbender-" all the children cheered the phrase along with their master. "We should give him the same welcome we give to anyone who has been away from training for a long time. Pupils!"
"Yes Sifu Toph!" She pointed at him with a wicked grin. Aang realized what she was about to say an instant before she said it but it was an instant too late. "Get that Avatar!"
The group of young earthbenders launched themselves at him. Stumbling back Aang threw up a rock wall to buy himself a few seconds. Reaching out he pulled the water from the rain barrels on either side of the small porch and set it to spinning in a ring around the air shield he'd summoned. Should have known better than to try and stop earthbenders with a rock wall, he reflected as his defense became a thousand projectiles. Launching himself into a current he flipped neatly over the heads of the attacking students and landed behind them. Six were immobilized in ice before they could turn to attack and he managed to freeze two more while the others scrambled to form a guard. The younger students were quickly surrounded by the more experienced, so they could be protected while they fired chunks of heavy rock at him.
She's taught them to fight as a team. Aang dodged thrusting pillars of earth that threatened to send him flying into the path of the projectile wave. The rocks were making this more difficult and he didn't want to hurt any of them. Spinning his glider staff he sent a shockwave of air that scattered the children like ninepins, managing to trap four more in the last of his water, sparing a few final drops for a wire to trip the stumbling students attempting to regroup. Choosing a different tactic a pair of the oldest fighters summoned heavy looking stone gloves and attempted to split his attention between them and leave him open for the others. Aang slid around them like a summer breeze, smoothly ducking and stepping in an intricate dance; flowing away from their blows while pulling small walls up around them to block oncoming rocks one by one as they flew towards him. His attackers realized too late that the constant circuitous dodging was having more of an effect than they had anticipated, as a wind began to rise in swirling circles around their ankles. He allowed himself a smug grin stepped into the center of the growing tornado, slamming the earth wall up to totally encircle the three of them and sending the spiral of air tossing his opponents across the training yard where they quickly found themselves immobilized by stone cuffs.
Swinging a clenched fist into the ground beneath him he forced the earth upwards into a shockwave that sent his ring walls exploding outwards. Most of the students managed to dodge the attack, but at least three were pinned by the sheets of stone. He was left with five intimidated youngsters and a trio of opponents who looked like they might be able to hold him off a little longer. Aang heaved in a breath and sent a burst of fire towards the group – ready to airbend it back in an instant if it looked like one of the children was about to be burned. He needn't have worried apparently. The older fighters threw up barriers or coated themselves in stone armour instantly while the younger ones pooled their powers to form an impenetrable looking sphere. That was my move against Ozai's fire. He noted, halfway between bemusement and remembered horror. Casting a hand to the sky, he felt static crackle as the air was suddenly robbed of its moisture. Pushing forward he iced the sphere over, keeping the youngest benders secure.
Pulling himself back into his basic airbender stance, he waited for his final three combatants. The way this group moved told him they had been training with Toph. They stepped lightly, lifting boulders from the ground and moving with them, accustomed to battling someone who listened closely to the sounds of the earth. Calling up ropelike twists of air Aang sent them out at the unsuspecting students, slicing easily through the heavy stones they floated before them, sending rock chips out in all directions. Moving in a circling blur of motion he caught the wind and spun it up and out, flinging the students backward with enough force to pin them to the walls of the training yard. He let the gale force buffet them for a moment before releasing, watching carefully as they slid into heaps on the ground. The Avatar stepped smoothly back into his beginning stance and released his control. With a few gentle motions the ice turned to water and a warm breeze blew the chilled students dry, the earth released them and currents of air lifted them back to their feet. Aang gave a respectful bow to the assembled group.
"You fought very well."
"I think you might be forgetting something Twinkletoes." The earthbending master hadn't moved from her place on the porch, she looked entirely unconcerned by the carnage around her and was grinning ear to ear.
"Are you looking for a fight Sifu T?"
"Well you haven't taken out the Bei Fong School until you take me down." He inclined his head, respectfully. Aang knew she could feel his heart pounding with excitement and anticipation. A fight, a real fight! Toph wouldn't hold back, she never did, and he wouldn't have to worry about seriously hurting her. "Earthbending only?"
She snorted with derision. "Don't want to make it unfair on you Twinkles. Besides I'm interested to see what new tricks you've picked up. Still doing that thing with the marble?"
There was a chorus of oohs from the watching pupils. Toph turned her head towards them sharply. "Everyone who wants to watch me beat the snot out of the Avatar sit against the back wall here," There was a mad stampede for seats. "Ziyi, Wang, you watch out, don't let anything touch them."
"Yes Sifu." The older students bowed in unison and took their places on either side of the rowdy group of children.
Toph stepped forward into the training yard and twitched her wrists sharply, bringing her palms flat and parallel to the ground. The movement was so small as to be barely noticeable but instantly the chaos of the training yard smoothed, boulders and rock fragments and sheets of stone melting back into the pristine looking space. "Impressed?" she smirked, quirking an eyebrow.
"I think I can fix that." One bare foot slid forward and a furrow of earth sprang up. Aang sidestepped neatly only to jerk back as he realized it was not just one furrow in the ground, but a myriad, really to slide him off balance and make him easy prey. Bending he pushed off the ground into the air, sending a slicing gust her way. Her pupils gasped behind her, but Toph had already dropped into a crouch. Propelling herself with a pillar of stone she launched into the air after him, enormous chunks of rock following her. A kick from her powerful legs sent him rocketing back to the ground where he was forced to roll first to the left, then right and quickly spin himself back to his feet to blast away the boulders that rained down.
"And here I thought you'd mellowed!" He called up to where she was perched on a newly formed column. Aang blasted a blistering wave of fire towards her, forcing Toph to drop the spire down and bring them back to level terrain.
"Not with you Aang." The use of his actual name from her brought him up short. However pleasant her welcome had been, she was apparently angry with him. Not the hotheaded temper that could give him an edge though; something older and colder was sharpening the knife edge of her smile. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. She blasted the ground beneath his feet off at two different angles, breaking his stance and sending him slipping back to earth where she brought up another spike, and another and another. Wherever he touched down it seemed like she anticipated his movements and forced him off balance again, keeping him on the desperate defensive as she began to simultaneously fling pieces of stone at him.
Searching for a way to regain the attack Aang sent another fire blast rushing towards her. Toph swung both hands up and across her body forming a shield of earth to deflect the fire. Using her momentum to bring herself into a spin she added her acceleration to the mass of dirt and stone she wielded and sent it flying at him almost too fast to dodge. Aang leapt back and pulled at all the water left over from his battle with the children, sending it to the ground, while he drew more and more from the air until the training yard was ankle deep. Toph stopped her furious barrage, trying to listen to the now muted vibrations of the earth.
"Why not with me?" He demanded. The knowledge that she was so angry pricked at him. Toph began to pull bricks from the walls around them. Aang moved back, ready to deflect, but instead of coming at him they burst simultaneously into showers of dusty sandstone. The dirt swirled into a cloud of choking dust, making him cough and forcing his eyes shut. Blind as her now. In answer he jumped into the air, freezing the water below him with a flick of his fingers. The sound of cracking ice told him that he hadn't moved fast enough, just as Toph appeared out of the dust, stone clad hands and a flurry of fist sized boulders forcing him to duck and weave, listening to the air currents desperately for any indication of where the next blow was coming from.
"Seven years Twinkletoes," He caught two of the rocks and flung them back at her, hearing her feet skid slightly on the ice as she paused her attack to knock them aside. "Seven spirits blessed years and you just appear on my doorstep?"
Aang took advantage of the split second respite to slam the swirling dirt back to earth. "I told you I was coming back!" He insisted, realizing too late that the dust on the ice gave Toph back her footing. He tried to call the air to him, swirling up a cyclone, but was abruptly cut off from the currents when she encased the two of them in an earthen dome which tightened to a few feet in diameter, limiting his range of movement and preventing him from air or firebending to the best of his ability. Toph threw a sharp jab which he managed to avoid coupled with a heavy right hook. Aang caught her fist in his own, bringing them to a momentary standstill. He saw her eyes widen in the faint light and knew that his raw strength had surprised her. We've both changed. "I gave you the necklace so you'd know I was coming back!"
Toph exhaled sharply, an expression of deep sadness flicking across her features so quickly Aang thought he might have imagined it. "I know. I always knew you were coming back eventually." Her tight fist splayed out under his hand and her other palm came up sharply causing a spike of earth to launch him through the dome's roof. "That doesn't mean I'm not going to beat you into the ground for being gone so long!"
He twisted in midair and sent a jet of flame down to fill the tiny shelter, struggling with the urge to curse when she simply bent herself backwards through the wall of the dome and threw up a shield as the structure exploded from the superheated air inside. Seizing on a plan for a decisive victory blow Aang liquefied the ice that coated the courtyard, spinning it off the ground into a whip thin stream while moving in the deadly terrifying forms that allowed a firebender to summon lighting.
Spinning the crackling blue white energy around himself he flicked the rivulet at Toph, surrounding her in a lattice of water. Smelling the crackle of ozone in the air she had come to associate so long ago with Azula, Toph dropped to a knee and wrapped the earth over her like protective blanket, hearing the sizzle snap of the lightning being fired she braced herself for an impact that never came. Aang had directed the lightning into the water, creating a sparking, flickering, deadly cage.
"Surrender?" He asked, breathless with the effort.
The smile on her face was eerie and beautiful in the electric light. "Never."
Quicker than his eye could follow a flurry of objects whipped out towards him. Toph's cuffs – Toph's new metal cuffs clamped down around his wrists, snapping his hands together behind his back and causing the water and lightning cage to crash to the ground just as the matching pair wrapped themselves around his ankles and dropped him to his knees.
They locked gazes across the training yard. Aang on both knees, Toph still on one, breathing heavily and dripping sweat; and in unison they both began to laugh.
"I have to admit I didn't see that one coming."
"That was amazing Twinkles! A lightning cage – brilliant!"
"You have gotten phenomenally good a metalbending!"
She whooped. "Spirits that was fun!"
There was an incredible cheer from behind her and Toph jumped slightly which made Aang snort with laughter again because she'd completely forgotten her students were there. She moved in a form he'd never seen before and he felt the cuffs release him as the still champion World's Greatest Earthbender raised one fist into the air in triumph. That gesture that reminded him so much of the tiny girl she'd been on the day he met her, it made his heart ache a little. Rising to his feet he faced her and they both bowed.
"It seems I still have much to learn from you Sifu Toph."
Stepping close she wrapped an arm around his shoulders and socked him firmly on the bicep. "Twinkles, was there ever any doubt?"
The one year anniversary of the defeat of the former Fire Lord Ozai was a massive celebration across the world. Even in the fire nation itself. Zuko had wanted to have a memorial day, a quiet advent of reflection for those lost to battle, for the humility with which the fire nation now acted. It was Toph and Sokka that convinced him that what the people needed after a year of political turmoil, assassination attempts and postwar disputes was a celebration. Iroh, as Regent until the Prince came of age, had agreed that the end of the war should be rejoiced; not as a defeat for the fire nation but as a triumph in retaking their honor, in finding their path. So the reborn nation hosted its former enemies in a gesture of peace and continuing harmony.
The young Avatar who had been Ozai's downfall was, naturally, the guest of honor. For a whole year Aang had traveled to world and helped it to heal. With his friends by his side he had presided over theelection of the new Earth King – Kuei still refused to return to his post, too enamored with the open road – and had helped to rejoin the Southern and Northern water tribes. He had freed political prisoners, ferreted out injustices and mediated at peace treaty negotiations. Slowly over the course of the year the team that had beaten back the Fire Nation had gone their separate ways. Zuko was called back home to study what he needed to know to become the new Fire Lord, Suki had returned to Kyoshi Island to train her warriors, Sokka to the South Pole and his father, followed soon after by Katara. Toph had till this point, continued with the Avatar, but her parents had been sending increasingly pleading letters asking her to return home.
Still, they had all made the effort to return to the fire nation to celebrate the boy who had brought them all together and the victory that had brought them all glory.
It had been a hell of a party. They had eaten until even Sokka was stuffed, danced and sang and ignored the customary rules regarding drinking and minors. Aang had been happier than they had seen him in a long while. He had done airbending tricks for the assembly, used all his outrageously outdated fire nation slang. He had insisted that Toph dance with him, building new steps out of dodging her attacks, and had stolen wicked kisses from Katara until her brother chased him with a breadstick.
And in the morning he was gone.
Iroh had read the letter that the Avatar had left out loud to the assembled group. Aang explained that the spirits of his past lives had come to him again. That there was a lot more about being the Avatar he needed to learn. They had told him there would always be something new to fight and that he needed to be ready.
Katara had begun quietly crying almost as soon as the first sentence was read. As though she had known all along this was coming.
I love you Katara, but don't wait for me. I don't know how long I'll be gone and you deserve every happiness this world has to offer. I know Sokka will look after you, even though it you don't really need it.
Sokka, for once with nothing to say, wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her hair as Suki leaned against his back supporting him with silent strength.
Toph, Sifu, I know you'll try and look for me but I'll leave you this so you know I'm coming back some day. I'll keep up my earthbending, I promise.
Toph sat ramrod straight, fingering the wooden beads that held the airbender amulet and refusing to acknowledge the tears dripping onto her clothes until Zuko pulled her close.
Zuko, keep our family together. Avatar Rokku says you have the potential to be the greatest of the Fire Lords and I know he's right.
I wanted to make all of you understand that no matter what, it was you that made me the Avatar. It was our family that taught me how to be a man.
I love you all,
They spent a long time curled on the floor clutched together in a tangle of limbs and half hidden tears; no one touched Iroh's tea.